Friday, 17 March 2017

The limitations of reason

In one of Carlos Castaneda's books, perhaps A Separate Reality but I don't recall for certain, Carlos has a conversation with his shaman teacher Don Juan Matus, in which Don Juan explains reality in terms of the contents of a small table.

He is attempting to explain two terms, the Tonal and the Nagual. I have read since that anthropologists dispute that Yaqui shamans use these terms in the way Castaneda has Don Juan explain them and some have claimed that Castaneda never went to Mexico and that Don Juan himself is a fabrication. In any event my own memory of A Separate Reality may be faulty and I have not checked, nor do I possess a copy any more. None of this really matters for the purpose of this essay, which is about how we experience reality and the limitations of reason in apprehending reality.

The explanation went like this. See the contents of this breakfast table. There is a table cloth (for some reason I remember a gingham check-pattern plastic table cloth, but that is probably my fabrication) on which are plates, perhaps salt and pepper shakers, knives and forks and so on. I imagine sunshine on the table cloth - perhaps this is a humble breakfast on a day in which there is no hurry. Again, the details are not important. Don Juan explains that the table top and everything on it represents the Tonal. The Tonal is the normal everyday world (although even this description needs to be qualified). The Nagual is everything else.

At first I wrote that the Tonal is the world of our everyday perceptions, but that is not right. The world of everyday perceptions is extraordinary and is not the world we usually inhabit. Rather we live in a world constructed out of thoughts and ideas. In any event, as I understand it the contents of the table top represent the realm of things we can talk about, and what we can talk about we can also reason about.

Somewhere in Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a description of two philosophers meeting for a discussion. Instead of using words they bring along a large number of disparate objects (kettles, armchairs and so on) and dispute with those. Now clearly that is a bit impractical. That is why we use words instead. If I wish to tell you about an elephant it is very inconvenient to bring an elephant into the room, and although people talk about elephants in rooms quite a lot, there is rarely a real elephant there.

So over perhaps tens of thousands of years, perhaps longer, humans have built up vocabularies of words and signs to refer to things and to states of affairs. The words stand in place of the reality. Words, ideas, images build up to form an internal representation of reality, and these representations are necessarily different from one person to the next, although there will of course be large overlaps and similarities (otherwise communication would be impossible).

While this is all very convenient it also distances us from the reality of our immediate perceptions. We see a tree, and instead of marvelling at its size, structure, the way the light catches innumerable leaves, the way it rustles, it is as if we only see the label, 'tree.' The same can happen with our interactions with each other, and with every mundane event. The label is fitted into our internal map of the world, which is as much like the real world as Google maps is to the town you live in, that is, it is and is not. It is in fact not merely a map but an internal monologue that replaces much of reality, so that it is as if we were wearing virtual reality goggles all the time through which we can see a dim representation of the real world as through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is the world of words and ideas that we can reason about. Everything else belongs to the Nagual. That does not of course entitle us to make bold unsupported assertions about anything. Any assertion can be reasoned about, challenged, disputed. All one can do with things that cannot be reasoned about is make poetry, art, dance or drama in order to try to resonate with that within us that knows already.

As Simon and Garfunkel sang:

Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said:
"The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence."

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